Miz McElroy was in pain.
Jake could see her shifting in her saddle, brows drawn together as she tried to find comfort. They’d been on the road for two days now, and though she hadn’t complained, he’d adjusted their pace some. Twere obvious she weren’t used to riding, and if they continued at the pace he’d set originally, she’d be no use to anyone afore the sun set on tomorrow.
He shifted in his own saddle, contemplating their path. They were almost two days ride from Cheyenne, and the plains had given way to a sparse forest, the distant mountains flanking them to the west. Miz McElroy hadn’t questioned their direction yet, but he’d bet half his pay she would before too much longer. However, he weren’t one to borrow trouble, and he’d deal with that when it came.
Clementine had come through, as he’d known she would, and discovered Callihan had set a path for those mountains. It were still doubtful he currently numbered amongst the living, but Miz McElroy were paying and he weren’t one to quibble when there was cash money to be had. He’d paid Clementine for the information, forming an adequate apology at the deception. She’d cussed him something good, but she’d taken the money and been glad of it.
Miz McElroy shifted again, wisps of colourless hair drifting about high cheekbones. Now he thought on it, and with the sun hitting it just right, her hair weren’t colourless but instead a very fine shade of blond. She were a mite thinner than she should be, her dress looser than any rich lady would wear it. She were sensible in that she’d found herself a hat, and her saddle bags were filled with necessary items. She weren’t like no rich lady he’d ever seen, not that he’d seen many. His time in cities was limited, and the rich folk of the towns he’d frequented only had him in their fancy studies for instruction and eventual payment.
The sun looked to be setting in the next hour or so. “We should look for a place to camp,” he called to her.
She nodded sharply.
She’d not spoken above four words since they’d begun their day, quietly going about tending her part of the previous night’s campsite and making herself ready for travel. He’d never met a woman like her, but then he’d admit his experience with the fairer sex were limited to a particular type of female. Her grit amazed even him, and his weren’t a life one would term kind. “Do you watch shows in Sacramento?”
She turned in her saddle, surprise writ large on her features. “Excuse me?”
He felt a mite silly for blurting words out, but all the silence was beginning to unnerve him. “Shows. You know, stage shows. There’s got to be plenty of them, in a place like that.”
Her brows drew together. “Yes, there are.”
“And you watch them?”
“When it’s required.”
“You mean you don’t?”
“I have more productive ways to spend my time.”
“Well maybe that’s so, darlin’, but sometimes a body wants some pleasure.” Images of pale skin and white-blonde hair on a soft bed flashed, feminine arms held out in welcome. He frowned. Now why would he be thinking on that? She weren’t likely to be open to the idea, and he had doubts she would be any fun if she were.
She didn’t respond.
An insect buzzed around his head. Damnation, now he’d offended her. She were a touchy one, was Miz McElroy, and he should know, ’specially after almost a week in her constant company.
He cleared his throat. “What productive ways do you pass the time?”
She studied him, and he shifted under her gaze. “Why do you care?”
“Conversating is better than silence.” The insect buzzed again. He swatted at it with more force than was needed.
“You haven’t not complained before.”
“I ain’t complaining now, but it’s a fine way to pass the time with some conversation.” The damn insect continued to buzz. He gritted his teeth. “Tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you’re liking to talk on? I’ll follow your lead.”
She studied him for time. “You don’t much like silence, do you?”
His neck heated. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” he said stiffly. “A body either likes to talk, or they don’t. I’ll be silent, if don’t is your preference.”
“I meant no offence.”
“I ain’t offended.” He urged his horse to faster gait. He spent much time alone, and when he was in company he leaned toward conversation. It weren’t nothing to make a body feel shame.
“You are offended.”
“I ain’t offended!” His horse shied at the loudness of his words. Patting her neck, he spoke soothing nonsense. What was it about this woman that riled him? She were nothing but a job, and he didn’t care one way or the other what she thought, or what she had to say.
She pulled up beside him. “What did you wish to speak of?”
He exhaled. “A conversation, darlin’. That’s all I was looking for. I didn’t think it would be so hard.”
She was silent a moment. “I am not used to conversation without purpose.”
“The purpose is to entertain.”
She mulled that over some. “I don’t attend shows.”
He blinked. “Sorry, darlin’, you lost me.”
“I don’t attend shows. In Sacramento.”
She were attempting conversation. A warmth began beneath his breastbone. “And why not, darlin’?”
She lifted a shoulder. “There is always work to do. Besides, there is no one to attend with.” She said this simply, as if it weren’t a tragedy she had no one.
Though he had no one neither, but he’d never let it stop him. “You wouldn’t go by yourself? Some of the best times I’ve had alone.”
Her pale lip twitched. “You haven’t much experience with Sacramento society, I presume.”
“Can’t say as I have.” He ain’t never been further west than the edges of Utah Territory, and even that had been a ways distant. “They wouldn’t look kindly on a woman alone, I take it.”
“Would they come at you with pitchforks?”
Her gaze whipped to his. “I beg your pardon?”
Surprise had widened her eyes, given some animation to her pale features. She were a pretty thing, when all was said and done.
He shifted in his saddle, uncomfortable with the direction of his thoughts. “Would the society folks come at you with pitchforks, were you to arrive alone?”
Again, her lips twitched. “No. That would be uncouth.”
He nodded gravely. “One must always be…couth.”
The tiniest of smiles touched her mouth. He glanced away His groin weren’t stirring at the sight. That would be some sort of foolishness right there.
“What happened with Clementine?”
“She found information for us.” Body once again under control, he urged his horse forward.
“I assume she did not hand it over joyfully.”
“No.” He rubbed a hand against the smirk her words caused. Clementine had been unwilling to share anything she’d learned, but he reminded her of the favour she owed and, grumbling, she’d complied. “There’s a good spot for a camp.”
The clearing was small, surrounded by young trees that would hide them from view with a small stream a short distance away. Quiet-like they dismounted, taking care of the horses needs before their own. Preparing tinder and fuel for the fire took short work, and he laid his bedroll near what would be the fire, propping his saddle at the head, noting she laid her bed again opposite, as far from him as was practical. It were no skin off his nose if she chose to lay far from the fire, but she had no call to complain when she was freezing in the small hours.
Night had fallen, a fire crackled and his belly was full of the canned beans they’d heated before she spoke again. “What did Clementine discover?”
Shoulders propped by his saddle, hands laced over his full belly, he cracked an eye. She sat on the other side of the fire, flame painting her pale colour in orange and gold.
Closing his eyes, he settled deeper into his saddle. Well, wasn’t that right fanciful of him, being all poetical and such. Maybe he should quit the life of a law enforcer and take up naval gazing.
“Mr Wade?” Annoyance coated her use of his name.
The corner of his mouth twitched. It were probably wrong how mightily he enjoyed riling her. “She discovered if he’s alive, Callihan and his men are known for holing up somewhere in the mountains for the winter, and it would take a host of men to find them.”
A loaded kind of silence. He fought a grin as he waited.
“Then why are we headed away from the mountains,” she said flatly.
“Because he ain’t there, darlin’.” He stretched his toes, enjoying the warmth from the fire.
“I beg your pardon?” Her words couldn’t be any stiffer if she tried.
“He ain’t there,” he repeated. He risked the crack of an eye. From across the fire she stared at him, her brows drawn. Ah. Emotion. It sat wrongly on her.
“How can you make such a claim?” she asked. “Weren’t you relying on Clementine to find your information for you?”
“Not wholly. Besides, why put around your movements so freely, such any can discover? Callihan’s kept his head out of the noose all these years, despite many looking to change that. He ain’t gonna do what’s expected. We’re headed to Deadwater.”
Her frown drew deeper. “Deadwater? What—where is Deadwater?”
“Outlaw town about a week’s ride from here. If he ain’t there, those that pass their time there will point us right.”
Frown still deep, she exhaled sharply. “How do you know all this?”
Pulling his hat low, he shielded his eyes. Her constant questions were beginning to annoy him some. Why was it he’d actually wanted her conversation? “I’m a marshal, darlin’. It’s what I do.”
“That’s what you said about Clementine, but you discount her information and follow your own which, I might add, you have not offered an explanation of how you obtained. Callihan is known to shelter in the mountains, but you take us in the opposite direction to a town that I’d venture to guess is not on a map and has no veracity apart from those that dwell there. You keep your own counsel and share nothing. What am I to think, Mr Wade?”
He exhaled and hauled himself up. She weren’t going to leave him alone, were she? “Half the job is cross-checking, Miz McElroy. I needed to know if my information was sound. Clementine discovered one thing. I discovered another.”
“How do you know your information is correct?”
He shrugged. “Hers don’t feel right.”
Her mouth opened but no sound came out.
He were tired of this. “You hired me because others assured you I’m good at finding those that don’t want to be found. My gut ain’t steered me wrong yet. ” Leaning back, he pulled his hat low. “Best to get some shut eye. We’ll start with daybreak tomorrow.”
Silence, nothing but the crackle of the fire. Then, “I apologise, Mr Wade.
She exhaled. “I trust you. I won’t question your methods again.”
Surprise filled him. He resisted the urge to lift his hat again, to see what emotion coloured her face in the firelight. “You’re paying me, Miz McElroy. I don’t provide subpar performance.”
“I apologise again, Mr Wade.” He heard rustling, as if she were getting herself ready for some shut-eye. “Good night.”
“Good night.” He laced his hands over his chest and told himself the warmth was from the fire and hadn’t been sparked by her trust.
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